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J. D. Salinger
1919-2010

   

Paula

by J. D. Salinger






   
 

            On the fourth of May 1941 Hincher returned home from work at 6:30 to discover his wife sitting up in bed reading. Hincher inquired affectionately:
            “What’s the matter? Don’t you feel well?”
            “Not too well,” said Mrs. Hincher, setting down her book.
            “Oh.” Said Hincher “Getting up for dinner?”
            “I don’t think so dear. Do you mind terribly?” 
            “No. No. Of course not. What are you doing? Reading?”
            “Mmm,” admitted Mrs. Hincher.
            At the same time the following evening, Mrs. Hincher was still in bed.
            “Shall I send for Dr. Bohler?” Mr. Hincher asked solicitously.
            Mrs. Hincher laughed her warm, delicious laugh. “I don’t think so dear.” She said. “I don’t think there’s anything he can do.”
            “How so? What do you mean?” Hincher sat down on the edge of his wife’s bed.
            “You big nut!” said Mrs. Hincher good humouredly. “I’m going to have a baby.”
            Stupification set into Hincher’s face, followed by sheer ecstasy. Then quickly he bent to kiss his wife first excitedly, then tenderly, and he began to make great promises and predictions. But he interrupted himself.
            “I knew the damn fool was wrong” He exclaimed happily.
            What did he say?
            “Who, darling?”
            “Dr. Bohler.”
            “Dr. Bohler!” said Mrs. Hincher contemptuously, but not unpleasantly. “Darling, a woman knows whether she’s going to have a baby or not. At least this woman.”
            “But I thought—“
            “—Darling, I know, I don’t have to see Dr. Bohler or Dr. Whoosis-Whatsis. I know. I always knew I’d know.”
            “But I just thought—” said Hincher. I thought Dr. Bohler said you couldn’t have one.
            I mean didn’t he say that?
            Mrs. Hincher laughed gloriously. She reached up two hands and gently took her husband’s concerned face between them.
            “Darling, don’t worry.” said Mrs. Hincher, laughing softly. “We’re going to have a baby.”
            Finally, leaving the bedroom to wash up for dinner, Hincher called back:
            “Getting up for dinner, sweetheart?”
            “No, darling, I’d rather not.”
           
            Weeks and then months passed and Mrs. Hincher stayed in bed, leaving it only to make certain small, obvious excursions to her bathroom, to her bureau drawers, to her dressing table, — and one afternoon when Sophie, the housemaid, begged off to see her dentist, Mrs. Hincher, in maroon wrapper and feathery mules, ventured downstairs to see if her Saturday Evening Post had been delivered. But all her little trips, side- and direct- considered, approximately 23 hours of the day, 165 hours of the week, 644 hours of the month, Mrs. Hincher resided under counterpane. She breakfasted, lunched and dined in bed. She read and knitted in bed, all current newspapers and magazines, bags of wool and graduated sizes of knitting needles, within her reach. There was a silver hand-bell on her night table. Two shakes of it, and Sophie, the maid, instantly dried her hands, or turned off the vacuum cleaner, or sniped her cigarette, and literally came running. Sophie received her instructions from Mr. Hincher at the same time he had raised her salary.
            “—Darling. Will you come here a minute?”
            Hincher re-entered his wife’s bedroom.
            “Darling, I’m going to ask something strange of you. You’ll probably think I’m utterly mad.”
            Hincher smiled, “What is it little girl?”
            “I want to stay in bed, sweet. I mean I want to stay in bed all during my time.”
            “Nine months?” said Hincher, incredulously.
            “Mmm. I want to. Are you furious with me? You are. I can tell. I see that sever look coming on your face.” Mrs. Hincher smiled up at her husband, pursed her lips slightly, and nodded to herself.
            “No,” her husband denied quickly. “Of course, I’m not furious. But why do you want to stay in bed? I mean why do you want to stay in bed?”
            Mr. Hincher waited.
            “You’ll laugh.” Accused Mrs. Hincher gently.
            “I will not.”
            “Yes, you will.”
            “Darling,” said Hincher, sitting down again on the edge of his wife’s bed. “What a thing to say.”
            Mrs. Hincher clasped her husband’s hand, as though to say what she had to say required his proximate strength. Mrs. Hincher spoke slowly. Her voice cool and brave, and yet Hincher detected a faint, a very faint note of fear.
            “I so desperately want our baby born safely, darling. I’m afraid of falling. I’m afraid of a thousand things.” Mrs. Hincher paused, suddenly squeezed her husband’s hand, as though some sharp, horrible image had come to frighten her mind’s eye. She continued. “Cars and trucks and things. I’m so afraid. And if I stay in bed I’ll be sage with my thoughts of you and baby.”
            The word “baby” sans the preceding definite article completely disarmed and waylaid Mr. Hincher’s heart. He replied to his wife in an exceedingly husky voice but with slight command in his voice.
            “You stay in bed. You just stay in bed as long as you like.”
            Mrs. Hincher’s reply, despite its brevity, seemed to identify Mr. Hincher’s immortality.
            “Darling,” she pronounced simply.
            Mr. Hincher patted his wife’s hand and repeated, “You just stay in bed as long as you like.”
            They seemed to share a moment of profoundest silence. Mrs. Hincher broke it, but apparently only with great reluctance.
            “Darling, there’s just one other thing. Don’t tell anybody. I mean don’t tell anybody that I’m in bed. Say I’ve gone back to New York to stay with my sister. Say my sister’s sick.”
            “But why?” Hincher inquired gently.
            “They’ll laugh.” Said Mrs. Hincher simply. “They’ll all laugh. I know it.”
            “No they won’t.” Hincher denied belligerently.
            “They will. I know they will.” Said his wife thoughtfully. “Ruth Simpkins would. I can just hear her laughing at me.”
            “That fool woman,” dismissed Hincher.
            “Yes, darling, but she’d laugh. They all would. I know it. —Darling, say you’ll tell them I’ve gone to New York to be with my sister. So they won’t know I’m home. You can make believe you’re coming to visit me weekends. You can go drive to the Cape and go fishing. You can go fishing. Sophie can do the marketing. She—”
            Mr. Hincher was a little startled. Mrs. Hincher’s cool, lovely voice had begun to take on excitement. It was strangely unbecoming, Hincher found and abruptly held up the hand Mrs.’ Hincher wasn’t holding.
            —wait a minute
            —“Now.” Mr. Hincher held up a hand, mock traffic cop style. “Whoa there. Whoa there Nellie.”
            He was a little startled. Mrs. Hincher’s cool lovely voice had begun to take on excitement. It was strangely unbecoming.
            Abruptly, Mrs. Hincher removed her hand from her husband’s. She neither wrenched it away nor slipped it away. She merely removed it.
            “You are laughing at me, too.” She said dully.
            Hincher was frightened. “No, honey!” he swore to her. “No, I’m not. I’ll do anything you say, little girl.”
            Quietly, Hincher reclaimed his wife’s hand. “No, No, No, little girl,” he swore to Mrs. Hincher’s sudden profile.
            She turned to him slowly. Hincher waited for exoneration, almost frantically for some look, some word of exoneration. Mrs. Hincher’s face conveyed nothing. She looked at her husband and yet beyond him.
            “Well have it just the way you want it,” Hincher said. “Just the way you want it.”
            Mrs. Hincher’s eyes gentled into focus.
            “I knew you’d understand.” She said.
           
            Almost every weekend Mr. Hincher went fishing off Cape Cod. It usually seemed that he had enjoyed his weekend immensely; for late Sunday nights when he stomped in his wife’s bedroom to let her peak under soggy newspapers at his catch, Hincher’s face under the watty little light of Mrs. Hincher’s bed-lamp was a happy one.
            But it takes five weekdays to make a week-end.
            Hincher was a very poor liar. But fortunately little enough skill was required of him. No one in Otisville doubted that Mrs. Hincher had gone to Akron, Oh to be with her sick sister. So when Hincher, with awkward gravity, reported his sister-in-law’s condition as Better, or Not Much better. Or They Can’t Tell Yet, the usual reply to him was It All Takes Time, or Send Paula Out Love. With practice Hincher’s lying improved. He learned in time that he felt surer of himself when he chuckled out his lies, rather than when he delivered them gravely.
            “Guess I’ll have to get me a new wife,” Hincher innovated one day (with a chuckle).
            “Why don’t you wait till the new models come out,” suggested Bud Montrose.
            Hincher immediately pirated Bud Montrose’s wit. And the standard Hincher Chuckle Lie then sounded in full:
            “Guess I’ll have to get me a new wife. Chuckle. Waiting for the new models to come out. (Chuckle, Chuckle.)
            …But he never learned to lie expertly enough to rest assured of no justified, but extremely loud accusation in a small, crowded room.
            Evenings, the Hincher’s usually played seven or eight eleven- point games of casino.
            Evenings, the Hincher’s usually played casino. Mr. Hincher sat on the edge of Mrs. Hincher’s bed, and a pretty white bed table was straddled gently over Mrs. Hincher’s legs.
            Evening, after Hincher had eaten alone in the dining room, he re-joined his wife, and usually the played several games of casino. Mr. Hincher would sit on the edge of Mrs. Hincher’s bed, and a pretty white bedtable was straddled gently over Mrs. Hincher’s legs. Generally they played until 9:30 or 9:45, at which time Mrs. Hincher often said: “Shall we read a little, darling?”
            Grand, Hincher often said, and he would cross the room to fetch the book of Mrs. Hincher’s choice.
            Of David Copperfield, Mrs. Hincher told Mr. Hincher:
            “I love it, I’ve always loved it. How is it you’ve never read it, darling?”
            “I don’t know.” Hincher said. “Never got the time.”
            “I love it,” said Mrs. Hincher, “Only I hate the Murdstone’s. Ill skip all the parts about the Murdstone’s.”
            “Who are they?” Inquired Hincher.
            “Davy’s stepfather and his sister. They’re horrible, Wait and see. No, I’m going to skip the parts where the Murdstone’s come in.”
            Paula laughed deliciously. [Handwritten note on manuscript.]
            Hincher sat back in an easy chair drawn close to David Copperfield, deleting all Murdstone passages. She read magnificently, gruffing her voice to sound like Dan Peggoty’s, debonairing it to suggest Steerforth’s, clammied it for Uriah Heep’s sake, jeep’d it for the sake of Dora. She was perfectly cast in each role.
            At midnight, usually, Mrs. Hincher stopped reading. She closed the book, and smiled at Mr. Hincher.
            “Tired?” He’s say quickly.
            “A little, darling.”
            “You go to sleep, then. That’s enough reading for tonight?”
            “Did you enjoy it?”
            “Swell book. Get under the covers, now. I’ll tuck you in.”
            —Hincher slept in the guest room all during these months.
            She first took to her husband, Bud, tell what he know to__ [crossed out in manuscript.]
            Ruth and Carl Perkins were at Emily and Bud Edmundson’s. At first while, Bud talked Perkins constantly rummaged a hand through a bowl of assorted nuts, singling out the pistachios. Then Carl Perkins suddenly stopped eating altogether.
            “He came here last Saturday Night.”
            Emily and I had just come in from the movies. And I [handwritten in manuscript] see Frank’s car parked in the driveway. I pulled up behind it, threw on my night lights, and went around to see what was what. Frank was sitting in his car.
            “Frank!” I said. “What’re you doing here?”
            “I have to see you.”
            “Well, come one inside,” I said.
            We went inside. He wouldn’t let me take his overcoat from him. He said he wanted to see me alone, and so Emily went upstairs. And Frank and I sat down in the living room. He still didn’t take off his coat.
            “I drove up to your place on Tuesday,” I said to him. “How come your phone’s disconnected? Why wouldn’t the maid let me in? What’s going on anyway?”
            What the hell. I’m his partner. I had a right to ask where he’d been when he hadn’t showed up for work all week. Know what I mean?
            Frank sat there as though he hadn’t really come to say anything to me. It was more as though he’d come to stare at the piano. He looked like hell. I think the reason he didn’t take off his coat was because he didn’t have any jacket on underneath. I could see, anyway, that he didn’t have any necktie on.
            “Is something wrong with Paula?” I said.
            “Did you heard some bad news about her sister or something?”
            “She doesn’t have any sister,” Frank said.
            “Wuddaya mean?” I said. “That’s who she’s visiting isn’t it? Her sister’s dying, isn’t she? I mean she’s pretty sick, isn’t she?”
            Frank shook his head. “No,” he says, “Paula’s home all the time. She’s been home in bed to have a baby. She didn’t want to walk around and get run over when she was going to have a baby. So she stayed home in bed.”
            “How long has she been in bed?” I asked him.
            “I don’t know,” Frank said. “Ten months.”
            “She’s been gone over a year,” I told him.
            “I tell you she didn’t go anyplace,” Frank said. “She’s been out of bed two months. She’s been in her room. With the door locked.
            “With the door locked!” I said. “Did she have the baby?”
            “She says so,” Frank said. “She says she did. I don’t know.”
            You should have heard his voice. I mean you could hardly hear him.
            “Wuddaya mean?” I said. “She says she had a baby. Don’t you know?”
            “She says she did,” Frank said. “But I don’t know. I came home one night a couple of months ago and the door was locked. I banged on the door and asked her if she was fine. She said she was having the baby.”
            Frank said he asked her if he should send for Dr. Bohler. Paula said no, that she didn’t need any doctor. Frank asked her if she was in any pain. Paula told him she felt marvelous. There was only one thing she wanted him to do. Frank asked her what it was. What do you think she said?
            “She said, ‘Go out in the garden and rub two roses together.’ That was all she needed.”
            “My God!” I said to Frank. “You didn’t do it, did you? Didn’t you send for Dr. Bohler?”
            “She didn’t want me to send for Dr. Bohler,” Frank said. “She said she didn’t need him.”
            Can you imagine?
            “Well,” I said. “You didn’t go out in the garden and rub two roses together, did you?”
            He said, yes.
            “What in the hell for?” I asked him.
            “She wanted me to.” Frank said.
            So he did it! He went out in the garden and rubbed two roses together. Then he runs upstairs to the bedroom (the door’s still locked, mind you), and Paula tells him the baby’s born. But she wouldn’t let Frank come in to see it. It was better for her to be alone with it for awhile. Frank asked if it was a boy or a girl. Paula tells him it’s a girl. She tells him it’s a beautiful girl with blonde hair and blue eyes.
            Frank asked her if she needed anything. Paula said she didn’t need a thing. Frank asked her to please open the door. She wouldn’t do it, thought. I said to Frank, “By God, I’d have broken the damn thing in.”
            Frank just shook his head. He said I didn’t know Paula. She was very sensitive, he said.
            Well, two months went by and still Paula wouldn’t let him come in to see either her or the baby. She didn’t even let the maid in. She never even opened the door except at mealtime, and then it was only for the made to shove a tray of food in to her.
            She just stayed in that room wit the baby. And Frank, when he came home from the office in the evening, would talk to her through the door. She’d tell him what the baby did all day, how it stuck its foot in its mouth and all that. Frank would ask her if she needed anything. Sometimes she did. The baby needed a crib or the baby needed a bottle. You know. Stuff babies need. And Frank would bring the stuff home in his car and Paula’d open the door wide enough to let him shove it through without seeing her or the baby.
            Then one day Paula tells him the baby should have a playmate. Not exactly a playmate, but it should have some child near it occasionally. She said she seriously believe a child’s most formative period was during its infancy. She said to Frank, “I’ll bet you think I’m crazy.” Frank told her no, but was getting damn sick and tired of not being allowed to see his own child. Paula laughed and begged him to be patient awhile.
            Well, Frank had their maid bring her niece to the house. A little kid about 3 years old. And the kid was allowed to see the baby.
            Frank says to the kid when it comes out of the bedroom, “Did you see the baby?”
            “Yes,” says the kid, very emphatically.
            “What’s it look like? A littler girl, eh?” Frank asked her.
            “It’s a little baby and it can’t talk.”
            The kid said it was a little baby and it couldn’t talk and it was in a crib sleeping. You know how kids talk.
            Well, a couple of weeks later Frank busted down the door.
            —I tell ya you won’t believe it.
            Paula was in the crib. Frank said she had her legs pulled up so that her knees were kind of jamming her in the chin. She had her hair fixed like kids wear their hair, and she had it tied with this big red ribbon. Except for that ribbon, she didn’t have a stitch of clothes on. Not a stitch. Naked as a baby.
            What do you think she says to Frank?
            She says, pulling the blanket over her, “I think you’re mean. I think you’re the meanest man I’ve ever met.”
            She made him get out of the room. The he came over to our place. He was at our place just sitting in the room.
            I told him he ought to go away. I told him he and Paula needed a good long vacation.
            I’ve got a postcard from them today, —Emily, what’d you do with the post card?
            The Hincher’s went to Florida. Hincher became horrible violent in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel. The assistant manager and a big colored elevator boy held him down, he was removed to the Lakewood home.
            Paula returned to Otisville and several months later resumed her work as a librarian. She still there today doing a brilliant job of it.

 
           

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